Classic Gear: 1959 Fender 5E3 Tweed Deluxe Combo

June 16, 2015

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s also a great way to gauge your legacy. While loads of vintage pieces earn “classic” status through continued use and desirability in their original form, the legendary tweed Fender Deluxe of the late ’50s has also established its longevity by being one of the most copied tube-amp designs of all time.

What’s so special about this luggage-linen-covered pine box with three knobs and five tubes?

Plenty. Rich and sweet clean tones at low volume, toothsome overdrive at decibels that won’t make the soundman apoplectic, and compact dimensions that’ll let it ride in the front seat of your Fiat 500. In short, the tweed Deluxe is the original “ideal studio and club amp.”

The Deluxe was one of Fender’s first-ever guitar amps. Introduced in 1946—four years before the Broadcaster—when Leo was mainly in the business of making lap-steel guitars and amps to go with them. As the mid-sized contender of the three amps in the “Woodie” lineup—a 1x10 combo positioned between the smaller 1x8 Princeton and the larger 1x15 Professional—it was a success with local So-Cal musicians almost overnight, and became the cornerstone of the new company’s mid-sized amp range.

Over the next ten years, the Deluxe evolved, moving into the TV-front livery with a 12” speaker in 1949, then the wide-panel tweed in 1953, and, finally, the revered narrow-panel tweed in 1955. Late in the wide-panel run, the Deluxe dropped the large eight-pin preamp tubes for newer, more compact nine-pin bottles, taking on a 12AY7 in the first gain stage of each channel, and a 12AX7 in the driver/phase-inverter. The circuit was refined throughout this period—mainly in the name of greater efficiency and improved headroom—but it remained a simple, straightforward, and sweetly raw-sounding amp to the end.

The latter renditions of the tweed Deluxe have become the most desirable, and the most emulated, having been refined to the point of optimizing what’s loveable about the design in the first place, without becoming so polite as to squash the amp’s character. The late-’50s Deluxe circuit—designated “5E3”—contains several key elements that contribute to its fabled sound. Amid an uncluttered signal path, this circuit incorporates a split-phase inverter and driver that add a little gritty breakup at the start of the output stage; two easily overdriven 6V6 output tubes in cathode-bias with no negative feedback for a sweet, harmonically rich tone; and a 5Y3 tube rectifier that provides just enough sag to enhance dynamics and touch sensitivity.

There isn’t a lot of headroom here. At about ten o’clock with a Telecaster, or nine o’clock with a Les Paul, you’re already dipping into edge-of-breakup tones, and flat-out raging by high noon. This is a big part of the amp’s appeal, and it’s a sound that has laid the foundations of so many classic and current guitar tones. Neil Young, Mike Campbell, Rich Robinson, Billy Gibbons, and countless others have tapped this diminutive tone monster to get their groove on. If you can’t afford the original, good reproductions are available from makers such as Victoria, Cortez, and Richter. The DIY-minded can also check out kits from Mission Amps, Marsh, Weber, Mojotone, Ceriatone, and others.

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS

• Two 6V6 output tubes generating around 15 watts RMS.
• Cathode-biased output stage with no negative feedback.
• One 12AY7 preamp tube and one 12AX7 phase inverter.
• 5Y3 rectifier tube.
• Simple treble-bleed Tone control.
• One Jensen P12R 12" speaker with alnico magnet.
• Open-back combo cab made from solid pine.

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